Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Local beef bouncing back

Published:Tuesday | December 2, 2014 | 12:00 AMChristopher Serju

Some beef farmers are cautiously optimistic that after years of decline, local beef production could be inching back up, in light of the perception that this red meat is once again finding favour with Jamaican palates.

They point to an increased demand for weaners (calves ranging in age from seven to nine months which are weaned from their mothers).

"People are paying anywhere between $125 and $145 per pound liveweight, and this is a significant improvement on what prevailed up to a couple years ago," one industry veteran told The Gleaner.

He went on to point out that beef production peaked at 18.4 million kilograms in 1992 but fell to 1.75 kilograms in 2004 because of the massive scale of importation and other policy measures which continue to negatively impact the industry. Between 1986 and 1990, local beef production averaged about 78 per cent of total consumption, but by 2003 had fallen to 58 per cent.

Another major factor in the decline of local beef consumption was the news about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, which spread across the world in the late 1980s.

As word got out that the disease could easily be transmitted to human beings by eating food contaminated with the brain, spinal cord or digestive tract of infected carcasses, many Jamaicans stopped eating beef. Left with animals for which they could find no market, many farmers opted out of the business, with some even abandoning their cattle.

It is generally believed that the BSE outbreak started in Britain and spread after cattle which are normally herbivorous (eating grass) were fed commercial feeds contaminated with the remains of other infected cows. But no one knows exactly how the first cow -the one that started this chain reaction -got infected.

Since then, the threat to human health from BSE has been significantly reduced as a result of the strict measures taken by affected countries, including a ban on feeding rendered carcasses and meat-bone meal to ruminants; the slaughter and destruction of BSE-affected animals; and the removal and exclusion from the food chain of specified risk materials from carcasses of slaughtered bovines.

BSE INFECTION IN JAMAICA LOW

Now, as then, the risk of BSE infection in Jamaica remains very low since the country does not permit the importation of rendered carcasses nor meat and bone meal of ruminant origin for use in feed for cattle. In addition, it does not permit the importation of fertilisers made from rendered carcasses.

This assurance has come from Dr Osbil Watson, chief veterinarian in the Veterinarian Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, in response to questions about some foreign media reports that diseased cows are incinerated and the ash used to make a fertiliser mix that is then exported to developing countries.

Watson explained that Jamaica maintains strict adherence to the measures set out by the World Organization of Animal Health, which classifies countries based on their BSE status and its continuation to demonstrate the appropriate level of control and audit at all levels to justify its 'Negligible' BSE risk status.

"The member country or zone will be included in the list of negligible risk only after the submitted evidence has been accepted by the World Organization of Animal Health. Retention on the list requires that the information for the previous 12 months on surveillance results and feed controls be resubmitted annually and changes in the epidemiological situation or other significant events should be reported to it," he disclosed.

So despite being hard hit by poor trade policy decisions, among other factors, which have sent up the operational costs for beef farming locally, some owners and breeders have stayed the course, slowly rebuilding the industry at great economic costs to themselves.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com